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Nearly 9,500 LI students refuse state exam, say officials

Students listen to a lecture on May 1,

Students listen to a lecture on May 1, 2013. Credit: Heather Walsh

Nearly 9,500 elementary and middle school students in more than half of Long Island's public school districts refused to take the state's English Language Arts exam, administered over three days this week, according to figures reported Friday by school officials.

Sixty-seven school districts in Nassau and Suffolk, in response to a Newsday request sent Thursday to superintendents in 124 districts Islandwide and follow-up phone calls, said 9,488 students refused to take the test. The other districts did not respond.

The number of students "opting out" on the Island, even with incomplete reports from districts, far outstripped those of last year -- the first year the movement showed a significant impact in New York. It has been fueled by parents' anger and organization through social media, with many rebelling against coursework and tests aligned with the Common Core academic standards.

Last year, the number of students categorized as "untested" showed an increase of 5,000 to 6,000 statewide over 2012, the state Department of Education has said.

"People feel strength in numbers, and I really think they feel they haven't been heard," said Michael Mensch, chief operating officer of Western Suffolk BOCES. "They have been pushed to the point to do something dramatic, and this is what we cautioned."

Mensch is one of many school leaders on the Island who have strongly urged the Education Department to delay the tests and other elements of reform.

About 204,000 students on Long Island and 1.2 million statewide in grades three through eight were eligible to take the ELA exam, administered Tuesday through Thursday. Some educators predicted the number of those who "opt out" of tests will increase when students in those grades take state math tests April 30 through May 2.

Jonathan Burman, an Education Department spokesman, said the agency will not have figures for students categorized as "not tested" until after exams have been scored and submitted and results reported publicly. Students who refused to take the tests, in the districts that reported to Newsday, were about 10 percent of those eligible.

Burman said there would be a "tremendous impact" for students who do not take the test. "No one will have a chance to see how those students are performing, in objective terms, against other children in their schools, their districts, on Long Island, and across the state," he said.

But Diana Andrade, a parent in the Patchogue-Medford district, said both of her sons -- ages 8 and 11, and in the third and fifth grades, respectively -- opted out of the ELA exam and will do so for math as well. The tests are not age-appropriate and have caused stress for children and parents, she said.

"We need to stop the Common Core, and we need to take a look at it and take a step back and fix all the gaps -- fix the curriculum, fix the standards, and fix the testing," she said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who supports the Common Core standards, has called the implementation "flawed" and said it has resulted in frustration, anxiety and confusion. He recently announced some reforms, including that students in grades three through eight will not have scores from Common-Core-aligned tests included on their transcripts through 2018.

On Tuesday, responding to a question about whether it is a waste of time for students to sit through a test that isn't going to count, Cuomo said, "It is the right curriculum, they're going to learn this curriculum over the coming years, but there was a little bit too much, too fast, so don't count the test scores. But the children do have to learn the materials, so it isn't a waste of time. This is what they'll be learning and be tested on in the future."

Of the 1,200 children eligible for the tests in the Shoreham-Wading River district, 400 opted out. Superintendent Steven Cohen said the refusals don't worry him and he hopes the state takes note.

"They have not been particularly interested in what teachers, boards of education and superintendents think about what is going on," Cohen said Friday. "They have to start listening."

With Michael R. Ebert

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